By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
Over the past few years the City of Oaxaca, the state’s capital, and environs have welcomed several new opportunities for antique collectors to browse, find and buy. It’s taken the form of a new crop of antique shops as well as makeshift roadside outlets.
In the wake of the 2006 civil unrest, located predominantly in the capital and nearby municipalities, several stores closed as a consequence of a dramatic decrease in both domestic and international tourism. Those problems now behind us, visitors have returned in throngs, meaning both a thriving economy that is able to facilitate sales of antiques to the local middle class populace, and of course to tourists with a penchant for collecting.
The range in product is vastly different from what we traditionally find in American and Canadian shops. As opposed to wooden decoys we find chango mezcaleros (monkey-form mezcal containers); rather than fine depression glass, there’s hand blown Mexican green glass garrafones (large water containers); instead of oak sideboards and dining room sets and pine flat-to-the-walls and cupboards, the wood is typically powder post beetle pocked heavy pine, mainly entranceway doors and tables; crocks from the 30s and earlier find their substitutes in pre-50s clay cántaros; and while Hudson’s Bay collectibles are impossible to find, vintage Corona, Pepsi and Coke are not. For the collector wanting to return home on the plane, easily transportable pieces also include ex votos, retablos and other religious iconography, masks, jewelry, artwork of some of the late great Mexican artists, as well as vintage textiles, irons and more. And for those driving there is always the option of sourcing heavy, well-worn stone metates and molcajetes and cast-iron potbelly stoves.
City Antique Stores
Calle Abasolo 107: This is the largest antique store in the city, and the only one which has stood the test of time, with a wide selection housed in several rooms. It has it all, with a broad array of jewelry, furniture, coins and the rest. It can be rather expensive, and prices may vary depending on whom one asks. Because of inconsistent and general high prices, I don’t recall ever having purchased from this store over a quarter century of living here. There is a section with art, but don’t necessarily count on it being vintage. Contemporary art aficionados are best off in the galleries such as Arte de Oaxaca on Calle Murguía.
Carretera Internacional 1803, Santa Lucía del Camino: On the main highway yet still within the city one finds El Quinque, a small shop usually with carts, wagon wheels and sometimes even vintage canoes out front. Inside it has the usual range of Mexican antiques, though quantity may vary depending on what the owners Lorena and Gustavo have been able to source. The couple is extremely welcoming, making shopping there rather pleasant.
Calle Porfirio Díaz 810: Like El Quinque, this small shop has only been around a couple of years. However, it tends to have a lot of different classes of antiques all jampacked into a smallish space but well displayed. There’s something for everyone including art and textiles. And like El Quinque, it’s easy to spot from the street, typically with collectibles easily visible while walking or driving by.
Where Else to Source Antiques in Oaxaca
Independencia 300: Across the street from the Basílica de la Virgen de la Soledad, this store specializes in religious items, many of which are vintage.
Plazuela del Carmen Alto: Miscelanea Cocijo is a small variety store, but contains two adjoining rooms filled with both contemporary and vintage masks, quite an impressive collection. If the owner is not there, staff may not allow you to enter the inner sanctum of masks. Along the outdoor walkway where the shop is found, during high tourist season such as over Christmas, craft stalls are set up; at times one also finds a couple of them with antiques and collectibles.
Searching for Antiques and Collectibles Outside of the City of Oaxaca
Many tourists to Oaxaca enlist the services of a private tour guide, driver or cabbie to facilitate visiting the craft villages, market towns, ruins and other sights in the central valleys. An option for the more adventurous traveler is to tell one’s guide or driver to deviate from the standard routes, at least to some extent, and head into the smaller villages where tourists traditionally do not venture. With a specific list of particular collectibles in mind, consider spending a full day out in the countryside, your driver assisting in knocking on doors. Residents are generally friendly and welcoming, even to pickers. If the search does not prove fruitful, the hunt and the experience should not disappoint the true collector or traveler wanting to get a real glimpse into the lives of Oaxacan campesinos.
You can also go to Mitla, noted for its archaeological site, where there is a large antique store with a plethora of different types of antiques. However, once again the prices are high, and in this case the owner is rather pushy. But it’s certainly worth a look as long as you’re not guilted into buying. And on the return to Oaxaca, roughly halfway, on the right side of the highway there is an antique outlet, much of which is displayed on the shoulder. Sometimes along other highways, such as en route to Etla or Ocotlán, one can spot other makeshift roadside stands.
Cautionary Notes about Buying Antiques in Oaxaca
More so in the antique shops as opposed to approaching folks in the towns and villages, one can encounter reproductions, so caution should be exercised – as always when it comes to buying antiques.
Finally, stay clear of archaeological pieces, whether stone or clay. They’re illegal to buy, possess or remove from the country, unless strict federal rules are followed. In all likelihood, whatever vendors at the ruin offer will be reproductions. While sometimes original pre-Hispanic pieces are indeed offered by villagers, it’s just not worth the risk. And of course, there are ethical considerations.
Alvin Starkman has been a collector for a half century. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).